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Tribeca 2015 Women Directors: Meet Jeanie Finlay – ‘Orion: The Man Who Would Be King’

Tribeca 2015 Women Directors: Meet Jeanie Finlay - 'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King'

Jeanie Finlay is an acclaimed
British artist and filmmaker who creates intimate, funny and personal
documentary films and artworks. Her focus is on creating compelling portraits, and she is obsessed with uncovering what makes people tick. Her credits include “I Am Orion,” “Panto!,” “Goth Cruise”
and the award-winning interactive documentary “Home-Maker.” (Jeanie Finlay’s official website)

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” will premiere at the 2015 Tribeca
Film Festival on April 17. 

W&H: Please give us your
description of the film playing.

JF: The
roller-coaster rise and tragic fall of the mystery masked man with the voice of
a legend. “Orion:
The Man Who Would Be King” tells the story of Jimmy Ellis — an unknown singer with an
incredible voice, plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part
of a crazy scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.

With a
fictional identity torn from the pages of the novel “Orion” by Gail Brewer
Giorgio, the backing of the legendary birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll Sun Records
and a voice that seemed to be the very twin of Presley’s himself, the scheme
concocted in the months after Presley’s death exploded into a cult success — and the “Elvis is alive” myth began. Who was
that masked man?

W&H:
What drew you to this story?

JF: Ten
years ago, I was at a garage sale with my husband in our hometown of Nottingham,
England. In a stall filled with cheap ornaments and dog-eared paperbacks,
standing proudly at the front of a box of faded vinyl records, we found “Orion:
Reborn.” Sun Records. Collector’s gold vinyl. The release date on the back said
1979. No songs we’d ever heard of, but that cover. Who was this mysterious
masked man, standing hand on hips, with his perfect raven hair and Sta-Prest trousers?
What the hell was his story?

I took
the record home, put it on and within seconds the mystery deepened. Whoever this
guy was, he sounded exactly — and I mean exactly — like Elvis. Except these
weren’t songs that Elvis ever recorded, and there was no mention of the King on
the record. But there was this odd story on the back sleeve about this guy
called Orion Eckley Darnell and something about a coffin and a book. Most of
all, though, there was this guy in the blue rhinestone-studded mask with the voice
of Elvis. I had to know more.

The
story I uncovered was one of the strangest stories I’ve ever encountered. As a documentary-maker, I’ve long been fascinated with stories
that peek under the surface of popular culture and the machinations of the
music industry that explore just how important music is in our lives. Stories
like my film “The Great Hip Hop Hoax,” about two Scottish chancers who faked
their way to a record deal by pretending to be American rappers, or “Sound It Out,”
which is about the very last record shop in my hometown in Teesside, or “Goth
Cruise,” a documentary I made about 150 goths (along with 2500 “norms”) taking a
cruise in the sunshine to Bermuda.

But
this story had it all. A roller-coaster tale of the Nashville music scene in
the wake of Elvis Presley’s death, taking in deception, a quest for success, a
search for identity that ended in tragedy. I knew this would be my next film.

W&H:
What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JF: There
were so many! There have also been the challenges of making a film that uses a
huge amount of fan archive, sourcing it from people who may not be online or
are not technologically savvy. We developed an online memory box called #MyOrion for people
to submit materials or stories. Even if they couldn’t use it, the request for
material elicited a lot of fascinating stuff, which we then collated offline.

Another
challenge is that some of the characters in the film are no longer with us, so
bringing their story to life through pure archive testimony was a huge
challenge. Hopefully we got there! I feel like I know some of them so well, but I will never have the chance to meet them in real life.

W&H:
What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

JF: I’d
like audiences to delve under the glitter and feel that they’ve gotten to know the
man behind the mask, someone they may not have heard of before but that has an
incredible and moving story.
I’d also like them
to think about their limits — what would they do to get what they’ve always
desired? Would they wear the mask? 

W&H:
What advice do you have for other female directors?

JF: Don’t
wait for permission or funding. If you can, just start to make your film. There
is an undeniable momentum and energy in actually making your film instead of
talking about making your film. Be tenacious and think like an artist. If you can — and I acknowledge that it is not possible for
everyone — but if you can, do no more than 50% of the childcare. It’s fair and
it’s the way that my husband and I have combined us both making films with
family life.

W&H:
What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

JF: I
was once told by a senior exec at the BBC, “Don’t ever describe what you do as “a
music doc” because it’s a subgenre in documentary filmmaking and you’ll always
be shown at festivals but you won’t ever win awards or play in competition.” I’m endlessly drawn to stories that use music as a way in, but it’s not the whole picture. I hope that people see the compelling human
stories at the heart of all my films.

W&H:
How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JF: It’s
been an utter test of endurance! It took forever to get funded, and in the end I
decided to just get on with it and make the film rather than wait for the
funding. I raised a tiny pot of development from a regional fund and would fit
filming trips in between showing my previous films, “Sound It Out” and “The
Great Hip Hop Hoax,” theatrically in the United States.

My
Nashville-based DP Stewart Copeland would pick me up and we’d get the next
bit of the film done. Then we’d drive to the next screening. Once I’d gotten about
80 hours shot and 20 mins cut into a pilot, people could really see and feel
what the film was going to be like. My
co-producer Truth Department and my funders, BBC Storyville, Creative England,
Film Cymru Wales, Broadway and Crowdfunding, came in one after another like
heroic dominoes and have been fantastically supportive.

W&H:
Name your favorite woman-directed film and why?

JF: “The
Arbor” by Clio Barnard. It’s so inventive, layered and heartbreaking, I love
Clio’s work. I’m also really looking forward to seeing “The Falling” by Carol
Morley and “Dreamcatcher” by Kim Loginotto.

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